Who says art has to be in a gallery? A road trip that takes in murals, sculptures, and other art in the great outdoors seems like a perfect (and safe) way to enjoy culture and nature at the same time. These three nearby destinations offer something to ponder on your next outing, and if you work up an appetite, we’ve included takeout tips and restaurant recommendations near the cultural destinations.
SENTIER CULTUREL, GATINEAU
This is the fifth year that the city of Gatineau, Tourisme Outaouais, and their partners have produced the Sentier Culturel, which meanders for three kilometres through downtown Hull. If you think Old Hull consists mainly of monochrome government buildings, you’re in for a surprise.
Take the giant colourful fawn peering across rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville from a grey exterior wall of the Palais des Congrès de Gatineau. Created by Portuguese artist Bordalo II from discarded consumer products such as bicycle wheels and garden hoses, it’s meant to get us thinking about the fact that we’re endangering the habitats of wild creatures by consuming so much stuff. Appropriately, the piece is called One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure.
Once you start looking, you’ll see artworks everywhere: a fragmented pop art mural, a mischievous elf on a rock, and my favourite — a flotilla of colourful canoes suspended above Brewery Creek.
In all, the trail features roughly 30 pieces — the number fluctuates, since some are temporary. The Maison du Tourisme (103, rue Laurier) makes a good starting point. Round multicoloured markers on the sidewalk and rectangular red-and-white street signs will help you find your way, and each work is marked with a bilingual interpretive plaque. The Go Centre-Ville phone app provides an interactive map to each location.
Bites: Even if you’re not usually a fan of uncooked meats, the crudos at Le Cellier (49, rue Saint-Jacques) might change your mind. The salmon tartare, served with spicy mango salsa and avocado purée, is particularly good. The menu also includes classics such as lamb chops and lobster risotto, as well as vegetarian options and Asian-influenced dishes. Not surprisingly, for a restaurant whose name means “The Cellar,” the wine list is extensive.
At the western tip of the Sentier Culturel, you’ll find microbrewery Brasseurs du Temps (170, rue Montcalm) in a heritage stone building on Brewery Creek. Appropriately enough, the structure was home to the region’s first brewery back in 1821. Today you can sample more than a dozen beers as you munch on everything from burgers and poutine to sea bream ceviche and halloumi salad. There’s a kids’ menu, and don’t forget to leave time to visit the brewery’s museum, where you can learn about the history of beer-making.
The city of Pembroke commissioned its first five heritage murals in 1990. Since then, the collection has grown to 34 pieces created by local artists. They’re a great way to immerse yourself in the history of this Ottawa Valley community, with murals commemorating everything from Pembroke’s status as the first town in Canada with electric street lights to the induction of three local men into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
One of the largest pieces is an 80-metre-long behemoth on Lake Street called Marching Toward the Millennium. It features a cavalcade of some 200 Pembroke residents past and present, including town founder Peter White Sr., a marching band, brides and grooms, firefighters, soldiers, babies, and many more.
As times have changed, so have attitudes toward some of the murals. In June 2021, city council announced it would review Marguerite d’Youville and Her Mission, which depicts 18th-century Indigenous peoples in ways that have drawn criticism. In September, council voted to keep the mural but passed a motion to work with the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation to commission a new mural celebrating Indigenous history.
The city website has a map and an audio guide, and until at least the end of 2021, parking is free for two hours at many downtown parking meters.
Bites: Many Pembroke residents trace their roots to Central and Eastern Europe. As a result, it’s an excellent place to pick up picnic treats. At Ullrich’s (214 Pembroke St. W.), you can put together a nice charcuterie board of house-made deli meats, local and imported cheeses, and crackers and spreads galore. A few blocks away, Kläsis European Bakery & Café (361 Isabella St.) makes tasty sandwiches, soups, schnitzel, and pastries (try the mango-passion fruit mousse cake). Take your goodies to Pembroke Waterfront Park on Fred Blackstein Boulevard for scenic views of the Ottawa and Muskrat rivers.
SCULPTURE GALLERY, GANANOQUE
The Rotary Club of Gananoque created and manages the Sculpture Park in the town’s Confederation Park, and they tout it as one of the largest outdoor contemporary art exhibitions in Canada. It isn’t huge — there are about a dozen sculptures — but it’s well worth exploring.
The artworks are dotted around the Mill Pond on the Gananoque River, once home to a shovel-making factory. Considerably more scenic now, the park has picnic tables, benches, and a waterfall created by a small dam.
When the Rotary Club decided to add sculptures in the 1990s, it leased works from the Canada Council Art Bank. As time went on, the club began commissioning pieces from Eastern Ontario artists that reflect the town’s history and environment, such as pitch pines (Gananoque’s official tree) and the rocky shoals of the 1000 Islands. The collection is now an intriguing mash-up of abstract geometric pieces such as McAdam, a 1972 work by Alan Barkley, and Great Blue Heron, a figurative piece created by Wolfe Island artist Bruce Mellon in 2006.
“Everywhere you look in Gananoque, you will see great blue herons,” notes Gwen Hundrieser, secretary of the Rotary Club. Indeed, I spotted one patiently fishing at the base of the waterfall during a recent visit.
Bites: Just south of the park, Riva Restaurant (45 King St. W.) is housed in Parmenter House, a stone mansion built in 1800. Best known for Italian dishes, Riva also serves a delish sesame chicken salad with mango-lime dressing.
Immediately east of the park, Shannon Treanor opened upscale grocer Lighthouse Provisions (5 King St. E.) in late June 2021. Pick up fresh sandwiches like the Jive Turkey (turkey, provolone, and pesto) and baked goodies (I can vouch for the butter tarts) for an instant picnic.